Have you heard about “virtue signalling”? Among the nationalist political writers, it’s all the rage to deride liberal causes and activists by using this term.

Apparently, the use of the phrase was popularized by one James Bartholomew, in this article for The Spectator:

“Go to a branch of Whole Foods, the American-owned grocery shop, and you will see huge posters advertising Whole Foods, of course, but — more precisely — advertising how virtuous Whole Foods is. A big sign in the window shows a mother with a little child on her shoulders (aaaah!) and declares: ‘values matter.’

The poster goes on to assert: ‘We are part of a growing consciousness that is bigger than food — one that champions what’s good.’ This a particularly blatant example of the increasingly common phenomenon of what might be called ‘virtue signalling’ — indicating that you are kind, decent and virtuous.”

My take on this would be: “It’s a poster; what do you expect?” It’s propaganda (or “public relations”, if you prefer). But we’ll have it your way, Bartholomew.

The Wikipedia article on virtue signalling lists some other oft-cited examples of the phenomenon:

All of these things could also be described as public relations or publicity stunts.  The Ice Bucket Challenge did get a bit ridiculous as a way for do-gooders to establish their liberal bona fides. I mean, look at this guy:

But where did this term come from, anyway? Wikipedia explains:

“Signalling theory has been applied to human behavior. Costly religious rituals such as male circumcision, food and water deprivation, and snake handling look paradoxical in evolutionary terms. Devout religious beliefs wherein such traditions are practiced therefore appear maladaptive. Religion may have arisen to increase and maintain intragroup cooperation. All religions may involve costly and elaborate rituals, performed publicly, to demonstrate loyalty to the religious group. In this way, group members increase their allegiance to the group by signalling their investment in group interests. Such behavior is sometimes described as ‘virtue signalling’.”

This is an example of a phenomenon that often occurs in academic or bureaucratic writing: using overly-complicated language to describe a simple and straight-forward idea.

Demonstrating that one is part of a group is not an unusual or complex concept.  It is the basis for how organizations function. It’s an elementary part of social activity.

But by calling it “virtue signalling” and applying the phrase in such a way that it becomes a pejorative, it creates a whole new way to criticize commonplace behavior.

This manipulation of language to cast mundane things in a more sinister light is an age-old technique.  For example, in the marvelous book Strategy: A History, Sir Lawrence Freedman writes:

“The word plot also acquired negative connotations during the seventeenth century… Yet the etymology of plot resembles that of plan. Both originally referred to a flat area of ground, then to a drawing of an area of land or a building, then to a drawing to guide the construction of a building, and eventually to a set of measures adopted to accomplish something.”

“A set of measures adopted to accomplish something” has neither good nor bad connotations, but by using the word “plot”, one can make it sound inherently malevolent.

Something similar has happened with the use of “virtue signalling” to make routine statements or actions seem disingenuous or hypocritical.

My favorite part of the book 1984 by George Orwell is the appendix, entitled “The Principles of Newspeak.” In 1984, Newspeak was the official language of the Party that ruled Oceania.  As the Appendix states:

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc [English Socialism], but to make all other modes of thought impossible.[…] This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words…

Orwell then explains how, through shrinking the vocabulary of the language, heretical thoughts became unthinkable. He illustrates by quoting the following passage from the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.

Orwell then states that “it would have been quite impossible to render this into Newspeak while keeping the sense of the original. The nearest one could come to doing so would be to swallow the whole passage up in the single word crimethink.”

Why do I mention this?  Well, it is very relevant to our present political situation.

One of the most notable things about Donald Trump is how few words he seems to know. People mock his tiny hands, but to me what’s truly amazing is his absolutely minuscule vocabulary.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in his tweets, where he will often conclude one of his communiques insulting someone or complaining about something with an imperative “Sad!” or “Bad!”

If Trump needs to lengthen some statement, usually all he can do is add the word “very” or, if he is talking about something he does not like, interject “so terrible”.

When Trump wants to add extra emphasis to some point, he often adds that it will be “big league”. (e.g. “We are going to win big league.”) Thanks to Trump’s peculiar accent, many people have misheard this as “bigly”; a child-like non-adjective that seems extremely fitting for the man, with his penchant for gaudy, oversized buildings.

If the problem were merely that our President-elect was a man incapable of eloquence, that would be one thing.  But it is far worse than that.

The scary thing is that his style of communicating is very infectious.  People–myself included–have picked up his habits of saying “sad!” or “big league”. It’s addictive, I won’t deny it; and there is an alarming pleasure in mimicking him–even for people like me, who find him utterly appalling and oppose him completely.

But that is the frightening thing: once you start to talk like him, you will start to think like him.  And once that happens, you could reach a point where “a heretical thought” becomes, as Orwell warned, “literally unthinkable”.

To be clear, I think Trump’s rhetorical style (if you can call it that) is more a symptom than the disease itself. I wrote back in 2010 that “Twitter = Newspeak”, and that was before Trump was even on the political map. I do think that the ascendance of Trump, who communicates through Twitter far more than most candidates, supports my point. It may be that Twitter itself made Trump possible.

I had a friendly bet with Barb Knowles on the AFC Championship game.  The loser had to do a post about the winner’s blog.  But, I like her blog “saneteachers” so much that I am going to post about it even though I didn’t lose.

She has a delightful post about the dialect differences she encountered on coming to Ohio Wesleyan University from New York. As she puts it:

They don’t speak New York in Ohio.  They speak Ohio in Ohio. Of course, to me it sounded more like Ahia.

As a lifelong Ohio resident–I grew up about a half-hour from Ohio Wesleyan’s campus–I know what she means.  Non-Ohioans have frequently pointed out that central Ohioans sound like this when listing our home country, city and state:

I’m ‘Merican, from C’lumbus, Ahia.

but then again, they might be from a place a little way east of Columbus: Newark, which is pronounced something close to “Nerk”.

I took a linguistics class in college where we had to do an assignment on regional dialect differences.  For instance, when informally addressing a group of people, Southerners would say “you all” (often rendered as “y’all”) whereas Midwesterners say “you guys”.

That of course was small potatoes next to the big dialect difference: what do you call those glowing insects we get in the summer–fireflies or lightning bugs?

In her post, Barb also mentions the age-old debate of “soda” vs. “pop”.  (Some also call them “soft drinks” or “fizzy drinks”.)  This one I missed, because in my family we called the drinks by their brand name, but I remember the first time I heard someone call it “pop” I was puzzled.

I’d also never heard of the confusion over “bag” and “sack” that she describes–I’ve always heard both used interchangeably. With the prevalence of television regional dialects have declined over time–maybe that’s the reason. I also never heard “rubber” for “rubber band”.  I shudder to think at the mix-ups that could cause.

I once got into an argument with two of my friends–both of whom are also native Ohioans–about whether you call this a “flathead” or a “slotted” screwdriver. (It’s “slotted”.  Don’t let my evil friends tell you otherwise.) I don’t know if this is a generational or regional thing, but it was interesting.

I’m lucky in that I have relatives all over the country, so I get to hear a lot of different regionalisms.  Even if it does cause some confusion sometimes…

Anyway, you guys–and you all–should check out Barb’s blog.  She’s a terrific writer, and has some very witty observations.  I wouldn’t have made my bet with her if I didn’t think so–and the fun of a bet like this is that everyone wins.

Look, this is not hard: this website explains it. You do not have to be a genius to understand it.

And yet, it seems nowadays that fewer people know how to do it correctly.  See, in that previous sentence–that’s using it correctly.  It would have been incorrect to say “less people”.

Is there less emphasis on grammar in schools?  Again, that’s the way to do it: “less emphasis”, not “fewer emphasis”.

Awhile back, Thingy posted about people who use the word “basically” all the time as a meaningless filler word.

I had never noticed it before reading that post, but now I’ve realized that I’m one of those people.  So are a lot of the people I know.  And now, like Thingy, it’s driving me crazy, but even I can’t stop. I tried to read up on it, and apparently it’s pretty common.  I was wondering if it might be a regionalism (American Midwest, to be precise) but I couldn’t find anything to indicate that.

I looked up a list of other “filler” words on Wikipedia. Here are some, along with whether I use them or not:

  • “like” (guilty)
  • “y’know”(guilty)
  • “I mean”(guilty)
  • “so” (guilty)
  • “actually”(Guilty–more in writing than in speech)
  • “literally” (Not guilty, and misuse of it annoys me.)
  • “right” (I’m more likely to say “I know, right?”)
  • “I’m tellin’ ya” (guilty–I’m more likely to say, “I’ll tell you what…”)
  • “you know what I mean?” (Guilty by reason of hearing other people say it, and picking it up.)

The Wiki article also mentions that “Ronald Reagan was famous for answering questions starting with ‘Well…'”.  I do that all the time, too. I remember when watching the debates, President Obama would often begin his answers to questions with “Well, look…” I guess all three of us could be accused of going to that well too often.


Is there an example of someone who (without using a script)  speaks without using any filler words?  I suppose it would have to be somebody who was good at thinking very quickly, because more often than not, filler words are used to fill airtime while you are thinking of what to say next.